tattoo hiatus and return: pt 2

If you’ve not read part 1 please read that first. In this instalment I’ll go through the details of my hiatus, and what I learned.

The reluctant tattooist

After years of trying to fend off stress, burnout, and my ever changing moods*, I finally made the announcement to quit tattooing.

*by ever changing moods I mean irritable, then slightly less irritable.

I’d been building up to this point for a while. In fact, anyone who knows me knows I’ve been threatening to quit ever since I started tattooing professionally in 1998. The cycle would last a year or two before I’d had enough and started questioning the value of what I was doing.

I always took my work very seriously, sometimes too seriously, but I could never quite believe that tattooing was valuable work. In fact, I usually viewed it as being self-centred, ego driven, and only benefitting the practitioner and the recipient. To me, there was no purpose to it beyond that, as much as I enjoyed doing it.

That in itself was OK, it had its own value, but it seemed like something was missing and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I was probably just overthinking it and getting in my own way, something I’ll be writing about in a future post.

Anyway, to get back on track, in 2017 I announced my plan to stop tattooing. I stopped taking bookings mid 2018, but it took me until 2019 to finally complete all the projects I had lined up. My plan was for it to be a nice round 20yrs of professional work, but some projects spilled over, so I took on more projects to fill the gaps.

I had no exact end date in mind, so I just carried on until all the work was done.

Finally, I could move forward with all those wonderful things I had planned.

So, you’ve got a plan, huh?

Wait, what?

Oh yeah, planning isn’t my strong point. I have a tendency to live in the moment, especially when it comes to making important decisions.

Retirement was a reaction to my inability to deal with stress, and a desire to have a different kind of life with a different pace. Well it wasn’t really retirement, just quitting, having a break, whatever. No, it was a hiatus, perfectly non-committal for someone without a plan.

But I never said I was retiring, just stopping, whatever that meant. Too scared to really give up the only thing I knew how to do and was good at, I would just walk away and probably wouldn’t pick it back up. Once I’ve dropped something I very rarely go back to it. My interest in things is like an on/off switch, but once it’s switched off it’s unlikely to ever switch back on.

One thing was for sure. I wasn’t going to be one of those tattooists who quit, only to come back a year or so later because they miss tattooing so much, a thinly veiled expression, meaning it’s the only way they know how to make a living.

So what was the plan?

I dunno, work on my sculpture, or get a job, or something.

Freedom!

So there I was, no longer a tattooist. Well, I still had a couple of small pieces to complete, but that was just a couple of sessions, a month or so apart.

In limbo, but finally free.

Oh, the relief. The stress was gone, I was feeling happy that I could start afresh, a new creative journey. The past was no longer relevant and I could reinvent myself. Not that I had a choice. People had thought I’d quit as soon as I announced it, and I didn’t help matters by deleting my social media accounts, not photographing my work, and pretty much falling off the radar for a year or so.

It didn’t matter. Didn’t I say I was finally free?

Welcome to the real world

I had been researching ideas for a post-tattooing career, including various jobs, developing my artwork, and just winging it. Everything would be fine. I had skills and I could pick things up pretty quickly if I found them interesting enough. I had a lot to offer. The problem was, I just wasn’t that interested, in doing anything.

What I didn’t realise, having been in my own self-employed bubble for so long, is how much the world had changed, or how much I might have changed.

The job market was just awful. High pay jobs I couldn’t possibly get, low pay jobs expecting multiple skills which should be well paid individual roles, and job adverts that seemingly weren’t describing the actual vacancies. Is the job market just another branding and marketing exercise selling something that doesn’t actually exist?

Fuck that. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

It doesn’t help that I’ll be 50 in a couple of years, apparently not useful or relevant in the job market, and I’ve got no discernible qualifications or experience except for a marginally useful degree in 3d arts/craft/design, and 20 years of experience in designing and problem solving. But whatever one achieves in tattooing, probably isn’t relevant in the real world.

Maybe I’m not good at hiding the fact that I don’t really want a job, and I hadn’t had a job interview since 1995. I have no idea how that stuff works.

It reminded me a bit of when I was about to finish school, looking for a job or an education that I found stimulating. Unfortunately, a common response was that my grades were too good and would find the work boring, or it was way out of my league and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get my head around the subject. That, or I could easily pass the entrance exams but ultimately found the subject too restrictive. Eventually, somebody directed me to study art and things began to fall into place.

OK then.

I just don’t get it. You’re either over qualified, under qualified, too skilled, unskilled, too much experience, not enough experience, too old, too young. Talk about mixed messages.

Tattooing was beginning to look like the only world I could understand, but I really just wanted to make stuff. Maybe I was too used to making my own rules, along with the illusion of freedom that brings.

Time to reflect

I had to do something, I couldn’t afford to just sit around doing nothing, as much as I wanted to. But a nagging thought kept popping into my head. What about tattooing?

What about tattooing?

No, there’s no way I’m going to accept the shame of failing, or not even trying, then come crawling back to tattooing just because I need to make a living.

Then, one day, I was visiting some old colleagues at their studio and we were sitting around chatting about art, tattooing, business, when someone mentioned how passionate they all were about tattooing. Of course, I wasn’t included in that sentiment as I was a moody sod who never stops going on about how much tattooing sucks.

Then it clicked. Hey, I am actually passionate about tattooing, too passionate sometimes. Maybe it isn’t tattooing that’s the problem, people are the problem. Maybe it’s the fact that I find relating to people really difficult, which in turn has caused me a lot of stress, which I have managed really poorly. Huh.

Overnight my mindset changed and a lot of baggage had lifted. What the hell just happened?

Call that a hiatus?

I do like tattooing, apparently I’m quite good at it, and I’ve still got things to offer if I’m given the opportunity. One cause of my frustrations was not being able to explore ideas that I was really excited about, but that is just something we have to learn to deal with. People did say it was a shame that I’d quit, which was nice to hear, but that didn’t mean much to me at the time as my mind was on other things.

The only problem I had was the idea that I’d be going back for the money. Well, no, I could get a low skill job and make ends meet. I wouldn’t have a problem with that, apart from the amount of free time I would lose. The reality is, unless you’re independently wealthy, which I’m not, you need a source of income, and bills need to be paid.

As much as I’ve never really enjoyed talking about money, I find it crass, there’s no shame in acknowledging that we need to earn, to keep a roof over our heads.

A return to tattooing would certainly help solve that problem. With a lot of baggage dropped I could begin to see things objectively, without shame, and with a clearer set of priorities it was possible for me to view a future with more balance and a lot less stress. I could enjoy exploring my art and tattooing, without the two competing.

Decision made, I would get back to it, after a hiatus that lasted an entire three months, maybe four.

How would I ever live that down?

The inevitable return

Before I stopped tattooing, a client of mine told me that sometimes we just have to accept that we must do the things we are good at. In many ways he was correct, even though I didn’t want to admit it.

With renewed vigour, I announced my return to tattooing.

As much as I would have liked to have waltzed back in, I knew that would not be the case. I was in many ways starting again, a nobody. The world had passed me by and the business had changed substantially over the previous few years. A fact I was aware of but didn’t care about because I’d be walking away.

In a sense, I’d be going back cap in hand.

Sure, I had my experience, history, and my portfolio, but that wouldn’t matter if nobody knew or cared who I was. I was pleasantly surprised at the response to my call out, with old and new names reaching out to me with moral support, or offers of a spot.

I can be difficult, unpredictable, and moody at times, so I was honestly taken aback by the generosity of spirit and goodwill from my peers, clients, and fans. Maybe I hadn’t burnt as many bridges as I thought.

The return was gradual, and it was difficult to find work, but I was pleased to be back, accepting an offer with a group of tattooists I’d never met before. This meant I didn’t have a history to live up to, nor to use as an excuse for my behaviour. I had to make a good impression, and behave myself, but I had nothing to prove anymore, and I certainly wouldn’t bite the hand that reached out to me.

I’m really happy, and I feel comfortable working with a great group of people who don’t seem to judge me or pile on too many expectations.

Through the latter part of 2019 I’d been slowly building things back up, at least to a level I can handle and maintain, and things were looking good.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

But that’s another story.


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